On Sunday, the first flight of more than 70,000 pounds of baby formula landed in Indiana, lined up to go to hospitals and medical facilities. But while some relief from the formula shortage may be coming, many Black and low-income families who rely on formula the most are wondering when it will finally make it to their hungry infant.
Since March, anxious parents have entered stores with caution. Availability of formula varies by location, but in some cities, grocery stores are over 50% bare. Vulnerable families across the U.S. are already facing serious consequences. In recent weeks, babies have been hospitalized because of malnutrition in South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, and Wisconsin due to the nation’s formula shortage.
“The biggest need is the specific formula brands for sensitive babies: the ones that cost a bit more,” said Mylissa Veal, a community organizer and graphic designer who started a campaign to bring people together to distribute formula to parents who need it, with a focus on families on Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) benefits and electronic benefit transfer (EBT). “People are going into stores to find empty shelves for miles around.”
The federal government is instating extraordinary measures to get formula: invoking the Defense Production Act, rushing past health concerns at factories, and attempting to pass legislation. Critics say it’s a political response to a market problem, since the shortage is the direct result of industry consolidation. Only four companies control around 90% of the country’s baby formula. The largest, Abbott Nutrition, manufacturing under the brand Similac, was shut down in February after reports of the bacteria Cronobacter sakazakii in the formula plant, leading to the death of two infants. Before the deaths occurred, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was tipped off but didn’t respond.
In some states, Similac is the only baby formula on the WIC list, forcing the FDA to rush an agreement with them to reopen to produce more formula. More than half of the country’s baby formula is purchased by families on WIC.
“More than 1.2 million infants receive formula benefits through WIC,” said Brian Dittmeier, the senior director of public policy at the National WIC Association, the nonprofit education arm and advocacy voice of the Special Supplemental Nutrition program for WIC. “This is not an isolated issue—it impacts millions of new parents across the country.”
For families of color, who are overrepresented in WIC and are significantly more likely to use baby formula, more solutions are needed—and quickly. Eighty-five percent of white families breastfeed, compared to 69% of Black families.
“During enslavement, Black women were considered to be workers before mothers, and their milk was stolen to nurture white infants, while there was complete indifference to Black infants,” said Andrea Freeman, the author of “Skimmed: Breastfeeding, Race, and Injustice” and a professor of law at the University of Hawaii. Freeman’s work focuses on food oppression, inspecting the cooperation between the government and corporations in relation to food and how that leads to and perpetuates racial health disparities.
“To justify that, these stereotypes about Black mothers developed, and they have been with us since,” Freeman said. “They underlie the policies in place now that make it more difficult for Black women to choose to breastfeed if they want to.”
Through a complex web of legal and social policies and manipulation, including mass marketing and myths about Black parents, Black women are still systematically targeted to rely on formula. While facing horrific rates of medical racism and high rates of maternal mortality, they continue to suffer from medical negligence outside of the hospital.
Black women are more likely to live in areas where the quality of hospitals are lower and not designated as the best for breastfeeding or other post-birth services. They are instead targeted by baby formula manufacturers.
“Formula is a product, and it’s driven by corporate profit-making interest,” Freeman said. “The issue is choice; everybody should get to make that choice about what’s right for them and their families equally. That’s currently not possible because structures aren’t in place.”
More than 9 million women work in jobs that don’t have protections for nursing or pumping. Black and other women of color are more likely to work in jobs that don’t have essentials like paid time off, health insurance, parental leave, breaks, and other needs to be able to provide for babies with any food other than baby formula.
Many Black and low-income families are also more likely to live in food deserts without a nearby grocery store. These communities are suffering from the lowest rates of formula on the shelves. Though more formula is on its way, many are concerned about which stores will be prioritized for distribution.
To try and rebuild trust, Abbott CEO Robert Ford issued an apology last week, offering financial support for families whose infants are currently suffering from malnutrition. However, he provided little information or transparency on how that support will be doled out.
As products roll back onto shelves, advocates and families are hopeful the entire community will come together to get food back into babies’ mouths.
“It will take a whole-of-community effort—including the ongoing partnership of retailers, WIC providers, and food banks—to plug the gaps as we wait for manufacturer promises to translate to stock on the shelves,” Dittmeier said.
Freeman agrees that more needs to be done to address this crisis into the future.
“The most important thing is to separate corporate interests from government regulation and legislation. We should not have our health and nutrition programs [driven] by what industries want; they should be driven by our health, equality, dignity, and citizenship. The things we believe our government is there to help with,” she said.